The East is still a top-heavy conference with the Chicago Bulls, Miami Heat, Boston Celtics and Orlando Magic all superior to their lower-seeded opponents. While the Knicks have enough talent to possibly sour Boston’s attempt to return to the NBA Finals, the first round mostly will be an appetizer for the postseason's mouthwatering second-round course.
(1) Chicago Bulls (62-20) vs. (8) Indiana Pacers (37-45)
Game 1: at Chicago, Sat., 1 p.m. on ESPN
Give the Pacers credit for buckling down on defense, finishing the season seventh in opposing field goal percentage (44.9 percent). However, with Danny Granger as their only reliable point-maker, the Pacers can’t score, finishing sixth from the bottom in their own field goal percentage (44.4 percent). This is a problem against a Bulls team that excels defensively, ranking No. 1 in numerous defensive categories including opposing field goal percentage (43 percent). Worse, while the Pacers defense is good, the team’s worst defender, Darren Collison, will be the man assigned to MVP-candidate Derrick Rose.
Edge: The Bulls defense should have no trouble choking the talent-starved Pacers into submission. Don’t expect a competitive series.
(2) Miami Heat (58-24) vs. Philadelphia 76ers (41-41)
Game 1: at Miami, Sat., 3:30 p.m. on ABC
While the Miami Heat have had a relatively disappointing regular season, they’re peaking at the right time, winning 15 of their last 18 games. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade have quietly been brilliant, and their defensive work has helped brand Miami’s defensive identity. The Sixers get creative coaching from Doug Collins, strong post play from resurgent Elton Brand, plus playmaking, defense, rebounding and slashing from Andre Iguodala — but they have few players who can create their own offense.
Edge: Miami has the defense to choke off Philadelphia’s offense, and too many explosive scorers for the Sixers defense to handle. Expect the Heat to romp.
(3) Boston Celtics (56-26) vs. (6) New York Knicks (42-40)
Game 1: at Boston, Sun., 7 p.m. on TNT
This contest should easily be the best first-round series in the East. While the Knicks’ defense is questionable, and while their offense struggled to integrate after the Feb. 23 trade for Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups, the team's new isolation-oriented offense is ferocious. With Carmelo Anthony operating on the right wing and Amar’e Stoudemire operating at the left high post, defenses are often spread thin and then sliced up by the Knicks’ offensive attack. Boston does have a championship core that can easily stymie offenses that lack ball movement. However, ever since trading Kendrick Perkins, the Celtics have struggled to defend as they usually do. Meanwhile, Ray Allen has struggled to free up for open shots. Boston also has been pulverized by Miami and Chicago this month.
Edge: The Knicks have the firepower to win a game or two, but Doc Rivers’ game planning will take away most of the Knicks' offense. The Knicks will struggle to defend, keeping them from seeing the second round.
(4) Orlando Magic (52-30) vs. (5) Atlanta Hawks (44-38)
Game 1: at Orlando, Sat., 7 p.m. on ESPN
Behind the leading candidate for Defensive Player of the Year, Dwight Howard, Orlando ranks fifth in opposing field goal percentage (43.8 percent). The Magic like to funnel ball penetration into Howard, which is why the Hawks are such a good matchup for them to face. Atlanta generates a lot of offense out of isolations. This works for them because they have talented one-on-one players such as Joe Johnson, but help defenders such as Howard can key in on the ball because there’s so little action occupying their attention on the weak side.
Edge: Like their second-round series last season, this matchup looks competitive on paper but could turn ugly for the Hawks on the court.